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Petaluma's Woolsey waves goodbye

Rep. Lynn Woolsey waves to the crowd during the 2011 Veterans Day Parade. Woolsey's 20 years of service is ending and she is retiring. Newly elected COngressman Jared Huffman will be taking her place.

John Burgess
Published: Friday, December 28, 2012 at 8:58 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, December 28, 2012 at 8:58 a.m.

“She's the closest thing to an unbeatable candidate this county has ever seen,” is how Petaluma political consultant Brian Sobel describes his former City Council colleague and longtime friend, Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey.

And he appears to be right on the mark. As a 10-term congresswoman representing Marin and Sonoma counties, Woolsey never received less than 58 percent of the vote, peaking as high as 72.7 percent in 2004.

“She has a basic commitment to people, social justice and children,” according to Sobel, which is what probably earned her this year's ranking as the “most liberal member of Congress by That's My Congress.

That, and maybe inviting anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan to a State of the Union address in 2006, where Sheehan, the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq, was arrested for wearing an anti-war T-shirt.

Or, perhaps, it was the 444 five-minute talks she gave on the floor of the House of Representatives in support of bringing the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I was the first voice for bringing the troops home,” she said, seated at the dining room table of the B Street home where she has lived since 1971. “I introduced legislation in 2005 to bring the troops home and it got 138 bipartisan votes.”

And then there was the time in 2007 when she was arrested in front of the Sudanese embassy with four other House members protesting the blocking of aid to victims of the genocide in Darfur.

And, of course, she supported gay rights, including signing onto Petaluman Steven Cozza's “Scouting for All” campaign to lift the Boy Scouts' ban on gay members.

Woolsey has never been shy about expressing her passion for issues, even when she served on Petaluma City Council beginning in 1984, and then as mayor from 1989 until she was elected to Congress in 1992.

“Even then she had a lot of passion for federal level issues -education, environment, justice, peace,” Sobel said, explaining that she was always interested in issues beyond the scope of city government. “She had loftier goals about how she could contribute to things.”

So she decided to run for Congress. This is how Woolsey describes her leap from small town mayor to U.S. Congresswoman: When Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) was a congresswoman, she used to invite influential women from around her district to an annual party honoring Bay Area women.

In 1992, one of the Sonoma County women sitting with Woolsey at the party said, “She's (Boxer) so wonderful, but I can't imagine doing what she does.”

And Woolsey recalls replying, “I can.”

That same year Boxer announced that she was making a run for U.S. Senate, and Woolsey decided that was her opening.

“I wasn't going to run against Barbara Boxer. I wasn't that dumb,” Woolsey said.

So Woolsey added her name to the list of Democrats vying for Boxer's seat, the last of nine candidates to file.

At candidate debates, “We were all saying pretty much the same thing,” Woolsey remembers. “So, I asked myself, why am I different? I had been a single mom with three kids after my divorce from my first husband and I had been on welfare at one time. So I set down my whole story and incorporated it into my debates.”

Then she went to her women friends, the same ones who attended the Boxer events with Woolsey and worked with her on the Commission on the Status of Women and the Women's History Project, and asked for their help.

“We made buttons that said, ‘Another Woman for Woolsey.' They were behind me 100 percent,” she said.

Most of the candidates were from Marin and they split that county's vote, so Woolsey won the primary with just 26 percent.

Then, another event occurred that made Woolsey a shoo-in for the November general election. Republican candidate Bill Filante, a very popular, moderate, long-term assembly member from Marin, was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He knew he wouldn't survive long enough to serve as a congressman, but it was too late to substitute another candidate.

Sobel recalls being summoned to a Novato restaurant by Filante's campaign manager, who told him Filante was dying and to keep the information to himself. A few weeks later, Woolsey was waiting outside Sobel's office door when he arrived for work, and she asked him about Filante.

All he was able to tell her was, “You'd better get ready for Washington, D.C.,” and off she went.

On her 55th birthday, Nov. 3, 1992, she won her first term in congress by 65 percent of the vote. And, when she took office two months later, she discovered how little she knew about the functioning of the House of Representatives.

But she knew a lot about hiring the best people, having worked as a human resources manager, a college professor and the owner of an employment agency.

“I hired people who knew their way around the Hill and who cared about my issues,” she said.

Top on that list of issues for Woolsey has been anything that benefits children. She is most proud, she said, of a pilot program she shepherded under the Clinton administration, which provided breakfast to all students, regardless of family income level.

“The results showed that children who got breakfast wanted to come to school, got better grades and became better citizens,” she said. “After that, the program was dropped because there was no more money.”

As Woolsey leaves office, one of her longtime projects seems to be finally coming to fruition: a plan to protect the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. Introduced by Woolsey in 2005, and waylaid by a Republican-led Senate after passing the House of Representatives in 2008, the plan is now on track.

“It is one of my top priorities before retiring,” Woolsey said in a press conference Dec. 20.

Sidestepping Congress, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) has taken on the expansion of the Cordell Banks and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries, which will more than double their size. This will entail an 18 to 24 -month public scoping process, with the first meeting scheduled for the Bodega Bay Grange Hall, Jan. 24, 6 p.m.

“I can think of no better going away present for Lynn Woolsey,” said Barbara Lee, (D-Berkeley), who joined Woolsey at the press conference.

Now, Woolsey has big plans for what she calls “the last quarter” of her life.

She will now have more time to devote to her job as president of Americans for Democratic Action - a group founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kenneth Galbraith, Walter Reuther, Arthur Schlesinger, and Reinhold Niebuhr shortly after FDR died.

“It's a big commitment,” she said. I'm in my second term. Now I want to get more involved. Reach out and bring younger people into the fold.”

She is also on the advisory board of CARE, a nonprofit that fights poverty around the world. She is part of the education commission, which takes Congress people to other countries to see for themselves the impacts of poverty. And she has taken up writing, which she calls “very therapeutic.”

So, how has 20 years locking swords and matching wits with some of the country's top politicos changed Petaluma's former mayor? Not at all, she says.

“As a human being I don't think I've changed that much. I've learned a lot. But I'm still the same Lynn Woolsey.”

(Contact Lois Pearlman at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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